An outpouring of anniversaries – Places in the sky

Other People’s Places: The Battle of Waterloo. Runnymede. An airfield in WW2. Flying Fortresses.

This lunchtime, my father, who is 91, put down his soup spoon, muted the news and lifted a finger, indicating we should listen to the sound of distant thunder. His ear was once attuned to this particular sound. He got to the window in time to see the formation of aircraft pass by in a stately way. “What sort of planes are they?” I asked. “Hurricanes, I think.” He described the difference between a Hurricane and a Spitfire. Hurricane or Spitfire, they are the real thing. We watched them patrolling in formation, a flying commemoration of the Battle of Britain.

Recently I’ve noticed an outpouring of commemorationism.

Staging an event could be said to consist of creating a temporary environment, a short-lived place. It exists briefly, uniquely, then it is in the ether (or The Cloud). It can never be repeated. Even long-running shows like Cats will not be the same on any two consecutive nights. The audience is different. The weather. Other variables.

Commemoration events briefly re-animate elements of the past, recreating aspects of life which exist only within these event environments for a short time. The Battle of Waterloo was 200. Within the past few months we have commemorated Magna Carta and VE and VJ Days; a raft of commemoration, 50 years, 75 years, 100 years, 63 years. These events serve the multiple purposes of encouraging civic pride, honouring those who died in warfare, bringing communities together and educating schoolchildren in an interactive and engaging way about the cautionary tales of headline history, lest we forget. They can create a temporary visitor attraction on stony ground where there is no sign of past events and they can theme the present for marketing. We can identify with the stories of ordinarily people (plural history is told from more than one perspective). We re-interpret the past from our own perspective, giving it a post-modern twist (or sprinkle) a fresh take, blusher and retro prints, a filmic gloss or a drab, glittery, violent realism. We preserve the lost voices in the fog.

My father is an RAF WW2 veteran and is impatient with these events; he remembers the bravado of scared boys climbing into the aircraft and there is something unseemly for him about making a fuss. Dad didn’t like Vera Lyne’s songs much during the war and mutes the TV when they come on. In contrast, my mother was a VAD and was always keen on watching the past parading by on TV, taking it in the spirit with which it is intended. There are, inevitably, many visceral stories. Whilst doing his training, dad spent time in the bomb dump where bombs were loaded. A joker threw a grenade into the dump while they were working. As it rolled across the floor the workers weren’t to know it wasn’t fused.

There is a exception to dad’s fuss-free rule, he lives in the airshow flight path. At certain times of year, there is a distinctive, resonant rumble and he makes his way to the window (often too late) to witness the powerful spectacle and sound of vintage aircraft thundering overhead. As he stands there watching, I can imagine my father’s billet hut shaking as the Lancasters took off. Dad learned to fly in Tiger Moths as a prelude to Mosquito bombers. He and I recently watched a BBC programme about the development of the Mosquito (which was built of plywood). Afterwards Dad said the runways had a speed bump and the Mosquitos were so light that they bounced. The worst part of the programme for me was the (unspoken) thought that if the war didn’t end when it had, my father would have been a navigator, perched in one of the two (tiny) seats in a plane made of balsa wood and string, sitting on a bomb. I can picture him going out on a raid, I can imagine him in uniform, with his red hair, as if he is on a restored film, but I don’t know if he would have come back.

So perhaps the commemorations are doing their job after all. They ensure the past remains, if overhead, a distant place, a flying fortress of commemoration, built of paper, leaving only traces and vapour trails.

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